THE recent fire which caused significant damage to The Fleece in Addingham, one of the finest old coaching inns in the Yorkshire Dales, was a sharp reminder of a very special part of Dales heritage which is at considerable risk.

The dramatic technical improvements in the construction and surfacing of public roads in the 18th and 19th century, in particular the building of several new turnpikes, or toll roads, had a huge impact on the Yorkshire Dales. It was an industry which helped to develop many of the attractive smaller towns and larger village of the Dales we see today.

Better surfaced and engineered roads cut journey times across the whole of England, but especially so in the steep-sided and until that time often inhospitable valleys of the Pennines.

The new roads made lots of journeys possible which in previous centuries would have been extremely difficult if not impossible, especially in the winter months when road became little more than deeply rutted, waterlogged tracks, with constant risk of a coach or waggon being overturned in some deep pothole with resultant injury or even death. Sensible people didn’t venture out on long journeys between October and April, and at any time of the year it was only a minority of people who could even afford to travel.

In days when the local parishes had to repair the highway, there was little incentive to improve roads.

The new turnpike system - far from popular when first introduced - was to raise cash from local landowners and merchants through a Turnpike Trust, which then charged every user a fee for passing the spiked gate or turnpike.

Fine examples of such turnpikes in the Craven area still largely in use as our modern roads. These include the Keighley-Kendal (1753), Lancaster-Richmond (1751), and the Tadcaster-Skipton (1773), and a very late example, Skipton-Cracoe built in 1853.

Good well drained roads, with smooth surfaces of crushed stones – later sealed with tar to produce Tarmacdam - enabled coaches to be built with springs to reduce the discomfort of a ride. As well a private coaches, there were the public stage coaches, each “stage” of the journey being a charged at a standard rate, a system which continues with modern bus and coach services.

But the speed of the coach and distance it could travel depended on the strength – literally horse power – of the huge numbers of horses required to provide Britain’s transport system. Horses needed to be rested and fed as frequently as their human cargo. This required a chain of key stabling points where horses could be rested before hauling their next journey back.

A huge industry developed along the turnpike roads, with thousands of horses requiring to be stabled, fed, and tended by a large work force - ostlers, stable lads, grooms, cooks, chamber maids, a major source of local employment.

You can still plot many of our old coach roads on OS maps, and travel them by car, cycle or even on foot. Coaching towns developed at strategic intervals where horses had to be changed and they and coach passengers catered for – Otley, Ilkley, Addingham, Skipton, Gargrave, Settle, Clapham, Ingleton, and Kirkby Lonsdale are good examples.

A clue for the existence of a turnpike road are the handsome milestones, sometimes of stone, but usually of cast iron, indicating the distance to main towns but also the name of the turnpike. In a few places, where not destroyed by road widening, turnpike tollbooths, where cash was collected, survive. An example is near Settle on the main road into town.

There are still many fine coaching old inns in existence, such as the Black Horse in Skipton, the Swan in Gargrave, the Lion in Settle, and New Inn in Clapham. Kettlewell’s three pubs are less an indictment of drinking habits of locals, more a relic of the need to change horses and take refreshment before the gruelling climb over Park Rash to Middleham, another old coaching town.

Yet within a few years of the boom in coach travel in the 1820s and 1830s, there was collapse. The coming of railways and fast, powerful steam locomotives, saw a dramatic decline in coaching. By the 1860s it was all over. Railways were the main means of travel until private cars, motorways and Dr Beeching were to do to the railway in the 1960s the railway did to the coach network in the 1840s.

But the surviving relics of this once great era of travel are a part of our heritage, not just the turnpike roads themselves, especially the quieter, now by-passed sections, but also the parallel green ways such as Mark House Lane at Gargrave, or Langber Lane near Long Preston which lost their road traffic when the turnpike was built. The original Lancaster - Richmond turnpike of 1751 used the ancient Cam High Way between Ingleton, Ribblehead and Wensleydale, making Askrigg an important coaching stage. But when, in 1795, a less steep route through Widdale was opened, Hawes became the principle coaching town, and Askrigg suffered a decline. You can still see the bell outside the White Hart Inn in Hawes which was rung when the coach for Richmond was about to leave.

The old coaching inns, like the turnpike roads, are precious links to an important chapter in our history, and as such deserve to be protected against ignorance, neglect or even wilful damage. Once destroyed, they are gone forever.